Faced with a potential deficit and dwindling cash reserves in the city budget, Apalachicola city commissioners last week floated the suggestions of selling off city buildings and raising taxes by a half-mill to make up for the shortfall.
At the first of two scheduled budget workshops Thursday, Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson and city commissioners reviewed budget numbers from City Administrator Lee Mathes that indicated that if millage were to remain unchanged, at 9.3543 mills, or even rolled back to 9.1734 mills, there still would be a roughly $200,000 deficit, and cash reserves of just $116,000, just over one-third of what they were this year.
“Our reserve is being depleted slowly, and we do not have anything in place. We don’t have a contingency plan in place or a reserve plan in place,” said Commissioner Brenda Ash, who took the most active hand among the commissioners in comments at the meeting.
“We need to look at either liquidating some of the properties that we have, or to set up a reserve or contingency fund,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with raising taxes and I’m not comfortable with where we are based on numbers that have been presented.”
Johnson instructed Mathes to get an appraisal of several city properties. “You’re speaking the truth,” he told Ash. “I don’t have any problem with selling off some property.
“I’m toying around with the possibility of putting City Hall up for sale,” Johnson said, referring to the 1838 cotton warehouse that now houses Main Street and city offices.
“Not just City Hall. We’re looking at these numbers here and we’ve got to find some money,” he said. “I’m not beyond considering that.”
In the tentative budget Mathes prepared, the current millage rate, if left unchanged, would yield a little more than $2 million in ad valorem revenues, about $21,000 more than it did this year. But expenditures are forecast to be at $2.19 million, about $205,000 more than this year, and thus the deficit.
The largest percentage increase in expenses is with a comparatively small line item in the overall budget, the Apalachicola Margaret Key Library, for which a 57 percent spike is proposed, from $67,000 to about $105,000. This is largely due to a doubling of the salary paid the librarian, to $50,000. (See sidebar).
The budget for the city’s facilities is poised to climb from about $91,000 to nearly $134,0000, or by about 46 percent, mainly due to $25,000 in renovation costs for to implement the Head Start program at the former Apalachicola High School, as well as an increase in utility costs there. The city’s facilities also include the gymnasium and field house at the former high school, as well as the Battery Park community center, Holy Family Senior Center, Sixth Street Recreation Center, the public restrooms downtown, the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts, and the Raney House.
The fire department budget, also a comparatively small portion of the budget, would sustain a 33 percent hike, from $47,500 to $63,200, due largely to $10,000 more in compensation paid out to volunteer firefighters, and an additional $5,000 payment on a truck.
The cost of general operations would rise by 12 percent, from about $592,000 to just under $666,000, due mainly to a rise in retirement and health insurance costs, a $25,000 allocation to the Main Street program, a $20,000 boost in legal and other professional services, a $12,500 hike in the cost of a building inspector, a $12,000 rise in the fee paid for city planning services, and a $6,000 rise in the cost of supplies.
The allocation to Main Street has up to now been paid for out of monies awarded to the city in the settlement of a lawsuit stemming from the April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Ash questioned Jim Bachrach, chairman of the Main Street board, and Augusta West, Main Street’s director, about details of the Main Street budget items, which also include an additional $1,500 for fireworks, upping the city’s contribution to $8,500.
She said the agreement to fund Main Street out of BP funds comes to an end this calendar year.
“It was for a two-year period, and then you were to walk on your own,” said Ash. “If the two years are up and you’re still not able to walk on your own, how long is it going to take?”
West said that Main Street has made “great strides in financial sustainability,” and that the city’s $25,000 funding would represent between one-fourth and one-third of the organization’s budget.”
West said the number of fireworks sponsors has tripled, leading to five-fold increase in the amount of fireworks contributions. She said fundraising, including online and personal solicitations, and the outreach of programming continues to be part of an expanded number of accomplishments and activities, including $250,000 in grants over four years.”
Included in Main Street’s plans for next year are to have West split her time as director over the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency), which is a separate entity, a part of a cost-sharing agreement between the two entities. “A lot of cities use that because of so much overlap in goals and objectives," said West.
City commissioners asked Bachrach whether he solicited bids for the fireworks, and he said he hadn’t over the past seven years, mainly because the price was so good.
“They’ve sort of adopted us,” he said. “There’s no way we could have fireworks at the cost we’re paying. It’s at least a 30 percent discount. It’s huge.”
Bachrach said the city and Main Street sponsors last year split the cost of the show. West estimated that the annual Autos and Oysters car show, injected about $200,000 in the local community.
“Next year, we’ll be in a position not to ask for city money,” said Bachrach.
“On the two requests for Main Street I’ll withhold my comments,” said Ash. “I’m withholding judgment. I’d like to see the CRA and Main Street budgets.”